John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

On Inerrancy and Interpretation in Scripture on Sexuality

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

I've been having some conversations on Facebook in which the topic of inerrancy* has come up. Some conservative Christians have expressed an opinion that you must reject the inerrancy of Scripture to be able to affirm gay Christians. Here is what I have given in reply, which I hope is helpful to others.

* Before we start, you may want to look up the definition(s) and historical background of the term inerrancy as applied to Scripture. Personally I no longer find this word useful for my study of the Bible, but it's important for many.

When we read and study the Bible, we must go beyond a simple claim of inerrancy to understand the text. I look at the layers of study like this:

1) The Original Text ("the received word/original text"): we no longer have access to this layer which is what the Chicago statement on inerrancy claims as the inerrant Scripture.

2) Transcription: the Scriptures were then passed down through the generations by scribes. Some say that at least certain of the texts were likely exchanged orally for a long time before being written down at all.

3) Canonization: Somewhere during the periods of passing down the texts through transcription, religious communities decided which texts qualify as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible (Ta-na-kh) went through 3 rounds over the centuries, in descending levels of sacredness (the Law "Ta-", the Prophets "-na-", and the Writings "-kh"). It's possible that books such as Ruth, Esther, Psalms and Proverbs (some of the "Writings") weren't yet officially considered fully Scripture at the time of Christ, though they were highly valued writings. The Christian Bible was formally agreed on a few centuries after Christ (though debate continued still for centuries), and then re-formed by first Martin Luther (who wanted to get rid of James and Revelation and moved the deuterocanonical books to a separate section) and the Scottish Bible Society in the 1800s (removing those inter-testamental period books for most Protestants for publishing cost reasons).

4) Manuscripts: the most original writings we have, which we base our modern Bibles on, are collections of ancient manuscripts from various sites and periods of time. These show a variety of variations from the transcription process, from minor word changes to missing sections like the ending of Mark's Gospel and John's story of the woman caught in adultery. The inerrantist view in the past has often dismissed these claims, I believe, while the infallible view says God has guided the process to ensure we have the truth. I don't think any of these variations diminish the Scriptures, myself. (Dallas Theological Seminary professor Daniel Wallace writes that he counts around 400,000 variations in manuscripts, and that there are more variations amongst the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Most are minor and easily understood though).

Now we move beyond the original words of the text itself:

5) Translation: every translation is an interpretive act, especially when moving from a millennia-old "dead" language of 6,000 words with no vowels or punctuation (Hebrew) to a modern language of 1.2 million words (English). Even the Bibles in use by the early church were translations, from Jesus's Targum (Aramaic) to Paul's Septuagint (Koine Greek).

6) Interpretation: Once a text is translated there is an additional layer of interpretation as we try to figure out what the text is intending to say for us today. For both layers of interpretation, we must account for the ancient contexts that the Bible was originally spoken into, and then the modern context that it is being received into. Scientific discoveries also inform this layer, as we see clearly in the geocentrism vs heliocentrism debate of the 1500's (both Luther and Calvin saw heliocentricism as a direct threat to the authority of Scripture).

7) Application: It is only after all these steps are taken (by ourselves directly, or through the acceptance of our community's work) that we take the final step of direct application in our society or individual lives.

So when it comes to discussions of Bible teachings like on human sexuality we have a lot of layers to consider.

Inerrancy or infallibility only cover the first four steps. Those conservative Christians who have not read the affirming scholarship are often unaware that none of these layers are critiqued in many affirming interpretations of Scripture. Inerrancy is fully compatible with much of what is called "revisionist" scholarship.

Briefly, here is what we argue (no evidence, just the premises):

1. Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) is a clear mis-application (#7), since the story has nothing to do with condemning sexuality (violence and inhospitality to the stranger, not caring for the poor in Ezekiel 16:48-50, etc).

2. Leviticus 18 is a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7), since it's likely specific to sexual pagan worship practices. "Abomination" does not designate all lasting prohibitions anyway, in its 118 uses throughout the Bible.

3. Leviticus 20 is also a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7). The command to execute all those condemned is a tip-off that we're most likely talking about sacred cult prostitutes involved in idol worship practices. Also, do we really want to stone all gay people to death?

4. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is a mis-translation (#5) as well, since no one knows exactly what Paul's word invention arsenokoites means. A good case can be made for it to be describing men who purchase services of male prostitutes.

5. 1 Corinthians 6:9 is another mis-translation (#5) of both arsenokoites and malakos which mistakenly assumes that ancient pederasty or male prostitution can be equated with modern same-sex relationships.

6. Romans 1 mis-interprets (#6) Paul's rhetorical speech as if it's his own argument, and mis-applies (#7) it as a prohibition all gay people rather than against those (as he explicitly describes) who start by worshiping physical idols, then abandon themselves to lusts which are too great to be satisfied by heterosexual relations, and end by becoming people who are "full of all wickedness" (this description does not depict the gay Christians I know).

7. Using Jesus's explicit and clear condemnation of divorce (which actually appears in 3 distinctly different versions in the gospels and yet one more in Paul's writings) to be authoritative over same-sex marriage is a mis-application (#7).

Therefore, the affirming argument cannot be dismissed simply by claiming inerrancy is on your side, since inerrancy only talks about layers 1-4 and cannot address the admittedly human layers of translation, interpretation, and application.

Photo credit Adriel Ifland, 2007